Is India there or not?
Is Sri Lanka located adjacent to
the Indian sub-continent or, not? The way some Sri Lankans seem to see
their physical surroundings, our little island is either adjacent to
Singapore (or, China) or, next door to Europe. Visit a fine dining
restaurant and ask for 'Continental' fare and you will be offered
European cuisine not Indian or other cuisine of the sub-continent to
which we are geographically adjacent.
Some Sri Lankans fly all the way to the Alps or further west to
experience snow and winter sports instead of hopping cheaply across to
Delhi with access to scores of ski stations in the spectacular
Himalayas. And are the biggest castles in Europe, the UK or, just across
the Palk Strait? And, why fly all the way to West Asia - sorry, the
'Middle' East - to see the desert when the mighty Thar, complete with
camel farms and desert kingdoms, is much closer with cheaper access?
There was a time when our Anglicised elite would sneer at 'Yindians',
but not any more. Too many of our middle elite have now studied in
world-class Indian universities and colleges and mixed with the parallel
Indian westernised elite and heard the same type of Ox-Bridge elocution
as we strive at here.
It is that sneer that reveals the jaundiced nature of our perception
of the Sub-Continent. On the one hand there is, possibly, a sense of
inadequacy on our part that needs to be compensated by (hopelessly)
attempting one-upmanship versus our giant neighbour.
Thus, we seek some empty reassurance that we are not part of this
('poor', 'dirty') South Asian region but are, instead, more related to
either East Asia or 'the West'. We indulge in assuming a cultural
separateness and, distance, from the very parent culture from which we
derive the bulk of our social-psychological mindset and cultural roots.
On the other hand, some of our intelligentsia adopt a simplistic
theory of pure competition as if all the current nation-states in the
world today - nearly 200 at the latest count - are discrete entities
that can, then, proceed to compete with each other economically and
socially as if in some game or sport.
There is a presumption that one can invent economic and social
pathways independent of geographical, economic and cultural affinities
that are inherent in our material contexts irrespective of what we
think. Thus, many Sri Lankans live in a social and political ethos in
which we may sneak across to Chennai to buy the best sarees and,
cautiously, go further north to worship in Buddha Gaya but, we suffer
some sort of knee-jerk reaction to inter-state dealings for systematic
economic and technical collaboration with our giant neighbour who,
luckily for us, happens to be the fastest growing industrial economy in
the world today.
First, there was the uproar against the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord under
which the regionally most powerful state, fortunately our immediate
neighbour, rushed in its own troops to help counter twin insurgencies
faced by the Sri Lankan State at the time. Indian soldiers died in
directly defending the Sri Lankan State against the northern
secessionist insurgency and this support enabled Sri Jayawardenepura to
deploy more of its military resources southwards to crush - quite
brutally - the parallel southern insurgency.
Now, there is an uproar over the ETCA.
Any business outlook that is pragmatically market-based and not
theory-based will acknowledge the benefits of linking up with a
neighbouring, cheaply accessible, market that thrives on the advantages
of economies of scale. China also thrives on this same advantage but
China is not at our doorstep. 'Value chains' must take advantage of
geographical proximity and cheaper logistics. Those numbers count in
Certainly, China may continue to be our biggest investor (and,
currently, our biggest creditor). But why lose even an iota of advantage
that we can also gain by close ties with our neighbouring Sub-Continent?
Our national strategic approach should be one where we seek
advantages and benefits from different types of bilateral and
multilateral inter-state relations, with some relationships benefitting
from geographical proximity while other relationships gain from other
advantages such as specific technological and industrial capacities and
greater availability of entrepreneurial capital and credit.
The Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement (ETCA) being
negotiated with India seeks to do just that. After all, while China may
currently be the biggest source of foreign direct investment (FDI), the
Sub-Continent is currently the biggest destination of Sri Lankan capital
investment - both in India and Bangladesh.
Just as much as the Government takes the lead in the
inter-governmental negotiations over ETCA, it is up to the business and
professional sectors to help the government design the intended
Indo-Lanka 'deal' to comprehensively address all aspects and nuances of
the transactions across the Palk Strait so that all our interests are
It is not so much as to 'whether' we deal with India - and the
Sub-Continent - but as to how we deal and what we can get out of it.